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Student Blog: Drinking with The Bard

My Experience at Drunk Shakespeare

Student Blog: Drinking with The Bard

"Good company, good wine, good welcome can make good people" - Henry VII, Act I Scene IV

An Introduction to Drunk Shakespeare

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend Drunk Shakespeare at the Green Fig in New York City. Drunk Shakespeare was a show that had been on my list of things to go to while living in New York for years, and now that I had turned 21 back in February, I was finally able to attend the "21+ only" performance. Here is Drunk Shakespeare's description as seen on the show's website - "Five classically-trained actors meet as members of "The Drunk Shakespeare Society." One of them has at least 5 shots of whiskey and then they overconfidently attempt to perform a major role in a Shakespearean play. Hilarity and mayhem ensues while the four sober actors try and keep the script on track. Every show is different depending on who is drinking... and what they're drinking!"

Drunk Shakespeare is located inside of YOTEL New York, a modern and minimalist hotel that makes you feel like you've entered a futuristic space venue. You take an elevator up to the Green Fig, the hotel's restaurant, where a representative of Drunk Shakespeare greets you at a check-in table and brings you into "The Gallery." Walking into "The Gallery" at the Green Fig truly makes you feel like you're entering some kind of secret society. I won't go into much detail but be prepared to be wowed! Once you're inside, a cast member gives you a shot and escorts you to your seat as other actors interact with the audience, asking questions and making jokes. The venue has a very "speakeasy vibe," perfect for a drinking club with a Shakespeare problem.

Before seeing the show, I got to interview Lisa Klages, the Associate Director and Production Manager, as well as Nate Betancourt, the drunk actor at that night's performance. Let's take a look at those conversations before delving into the show itself!

Interview with Lisa Klages

Kat: So how did you first get involved with Drunk Shakespeare?

Lisa: So, I have been with Drunk Shakespeare for about seven years. I started because I'm also a stage manager and I was working with Drunk Shakespeare's producer on another show. But I do have a degree in directing and a strong interest in Shakespeare, so it was sort of an inevitable fit that I came into Drunk Shakespeare. I'm now the associate director of the show. Scott Griffin, the producer, and David Hudson, the original director and co-creator, came up with Drunk Shakespeare - They had it in a bar space on 46th Street and it was very much a work in progress. It changed drastically every night. And it was a wonderful show, but they were looking for someone to come in and commercialize it, to raise the professionalism, making sure that the show that you see every night is matching the ticket price and that the audience experience is great. They also set up sustainability for drinking. So my background in logistics and creativity meant that I got to have a lot of fun amplifying the creative content of the show, but also adding the safety mechanisms and the structures in place to make it sustainable. I've also worked with running it in other cities.

Kat: You've mentioned safety mechanisms. What are some of the ones used in the show?

Lisa: We're dealing with drinking here. And it's obviously authentic, we verify it on stage. But we just want to make sure that that actor is incredibly supported. We have a really big company of people that rotate in and out so they're not drinking every day - They drink roughly once a week. But anytime someone needs a break, we can easily accommodate that. They [the drunk actors] get a car home every night. Anyone who's not the drunk actor cannot consume any alcohol at any time so there's always a support system for them [the drunk actor]. You can't have five drunk people - To parody something, you have to have the straight version of it as well. So there are a lot of things related to health, safety, and sustainability. And also making sure that the actors feel positive to unlock. You know, you go out to drink, and you're either in a great mood, and you're having a lot of fun, or the negative effects of alcohol are hitting you. So helping to make sure that they're in a place to stay operationalizing, that really positive part of drinking, which is fun, but also about confidence. There's also the emotional arc of the text, stuff like that.

Kat: Is there a specific process where you explain the drunk experience to the actors when they're getting cast?

Lisa: We really rehearse the show straight, we don't drink in rehearsal. And we talk a lot about setting up the foundation. Then we talk a little bit about it like, "This is the character arc. These are the emotions this character's dealing with when you're drinking," and you start to get that drunk emotion, like these are the things that you can start looking into and focusing on. How can we make Shakespeare even better when you add alcohol into it? And I think that comes with candidness and raw performance. I love all performers. But a lot of times when you see a show, it's very clear that they're acting, but this is so personal and authentic. When you're drinking, you're just so honest. And that makes the performance really special. During the show, the "King" can ring the bell and issue challenges. The host who picks the challenges designs something really unique to whatever actor is drinking that night. So if you see Nate drinking versus if you see Danielle or Preston, or any of our other cast drinking, it's a completely different show. Like Danielle is a Shakespeare buff. She does all different monologues from Shakespeare. So I've seen them ask her to do like 10 monologues in one chunk. Nate likes to play really specific Shakespeare characters, so they might throw certain characters at him, he can do all kinds of stuff. So it's usually personalized to whatever that actor can do. You never know what they're going to come up with.

Kat: How are the drunk actors selected for each show? When the cast gets their schedule, do they know when they're going to be the drunk actor ahead of time?

Lisa: Absolutely, that's part of the safety of it, we try to give them plenty of advance notice for drinking. It's like running a marathon - You want to be eating well before, to make sure you have a diet that's high in fat and protein so that the alcohol can be absorbed and processed safely. They want to make sure they're sleeping well. Often actors choose not to drink in their social life when they have to drink here, just to make sure that's sustainable. So it's never an on-the-fly decision. It's not a surprise. Even with COVID, we give them as much notice as possible.

Kat: Have there ever been any situations like mishaps?

Lisa: *Knocks on the wooden table*

Kat: So far, so good!


Lisa: When I started at Drunk Shakespeare, I think I was most concerned about, what mishaps could happen, but they are true professionals. And, you know, we take good care of them. We have not had any incidents with the cast. Some audiences every now and then might drink too much. But I think our venue, being professional, the drink price point is like $18. So people aren't just like counting drinks. It's very few and far between, that we have any sort of problem. More often than not, there are really incredible moments that happen. We've had clients getting engaged before the show! Truly, we've been very fortunate. But also the systems are in place to make sure that it's not a drunken brawl.

Kat: Are the actors trained to respond to audience members if they get too rowdy?

Lisa: Yeah, a lot of my background is in improv theater. And also an immersive - I worked with Sleep No More for a little bit. So I have experience in directing and guiding audience participation in a lot of different ways. In rehearsal, we carry the ideal of the show, which is that you always want to make the audience feel awesome. So whatever they're bringing into the room, you want to build them up. I think it's easy. My least favorite kind of comedy is deprecating comedy. I've seen comedy, where someone's like, "Hey, that guy over there, it looks ugly," and just makes them feel terrible. The room laughs, but you don't walk out feeling good, and you're not necessarily going to tell someone else about the show. But I try to talk to the actors. "Yes, and" is the key principle of improv. So if someone really wants to participate, and they've been calling out the whole show, we don't really want that, but we can take what they're trying to bring to the table and give them an opportunity to be involved. Like, let's give them a role on the show that night, let's talk on the sidelines. I'm watching the majority of the shows with the cast, and I'm touching base with them throughout the show. So if there's an audience member here, that's like constantly calling out like he wants to participate, I'll say like, "Hey, can you get that guy involved in this specific moment?" And then he'll have a great time. That's the way we approach it. We just take what people bring into the room and channel that into a network of things that work for us.

Kat: How much experience do you have with Shakespeare?

Lisa: I would say a decent amount. I went to Pace University and we had masterclasses from The Globe. I specialized as a student director, adapting classics into either present-day or an immersive facade. Shakespeare's themes feel somewhat unapproachable if you don't really know them, but then when you get into them, they're so relatable and modern. He just transcends time in the way that he has these insights into humanity. So I love working on his texts and modernizing them. The show that we're doing right now, Drunk Shakespeare, would be what Shakespeare was back in its day. It wasn't a highbrow thing - It was for the common people. Having these awesome improv and Shakespeare experiences in my background gave me a good toolkit to bring here.

Kat: Do you have a favorite Shakespeare play?

Lisa: Definitely! So the mainstream favorite for me would be Hamlet because I also love psychology and all the themes. My deep-cut favorite is Richard II because it's so insightful. What I love about Drunk Shakespeare is that when I meet these actors, and I talk with them about their favorite Shakespeare shows and how to work them into our show, I get to work on chunks of every show with them. I also do monologue coaching for people auditioning and I'm in every audition, so I feel like at this point I've seen it all.

Kat: Is your favorite drunk version of a play is that different than your favorite straight Shakespeare play?

Lisa: I love any moment where the drunk actor's tapping into like a heightened tragedy moment, and in Macbeth, those moments are constant. That's why I love doing Macbeth. We get a lot of questions like, "Oh, why don't you do Midsummer?" And I'm like, you can't a parody of a comedy, they're already drunk and silly! So I love Macbeth. I love when actors here do a chunk of Titus or something like that. Yeah, really high drama stuff is my favorite. Especially when you're drunk because you can tap into the emotion.

Kat: Do most people who come to the show know Shakespeare?

Lisa: I feel like it's very mixed. Every now and then we get an audience that is like, true Shakespeare buffs, and our cast and I perceive that and we'll adjust the way the show goes, double down on the text. But more often than not, I think we've gotten people that it's their first play ever, or it's their first time hearing Shakespeare, or they read Shakespeare in high school and hated it. And that's where a lot of the pop culture, modernism, and innovation come in. How can we make this clear and accessible to people who might not know it? I like meeting people that don't like Shakespeare - I'll see them at check-in sometimes. And then at the end, I'm like, "Did you have a good time?" and they go, "I loved it!" So I think it's mixed. It biases more towards non-Shakespeare fans at this point. We're starting to get more of a mainstream clientele.

Kat: How do you try to make your advertising as appealing as possible?

Lisa: We don't really advertise. We can't compete. We're so small, we can't compete with a Broadway advertising budget that's astronomical. It's so expensive. But my producer, Scott Griffin, he's so smart about the way to reach customers. What he talks about all the time is word of mouth. Because you can see something advertised like five times and you still might not buy a ticket, but the second you meet a friend that's like "I did this yesterday - I had a great time you have to go," and suddenly everyone wants to go. So we really don't put the budget into advertising as much as we put investment into making sure that the show is strong. Everything is something that generates positive word of mouth so that you're likely to have a really great time and want to come back. And it's the same reason why we don't like negative comedy - I don't want to make someone feel terrible in the room. They're gonna not talk about the show and they're not gonna want to break up friends if we make fun of them. So just like making sure that the audience has a great time and feels legendary and epic. That's our marketing!

Kat: Are the drinks custom for the show?

Lisa: So in Chicago, we do have our own bar. And we have these recipes that have been designed by us and have existed for seven years or so. But now that we've moved here, we've handed over food and beverage to the hotel, and they do a great job. And I really like all their stuff, but it's not our "Society" stuff. But in Chicago, you can have our like Drunk Shakespeare exclusive cocktails. They're all like Shakespeare derived and have ingredients that relate to the plays. It's really fun. I love interesting cocktails, so I like playing in that world as well. That was something I did not know before starting the show!

Interview with Nate Betancourt Pre-Show

Kat: So how did you first get involved with Drunk Shakespeare?

Nate: I started in July of 2019. I had auditioned a year before and was at Trainspotting at the time, which was another show Brass Jar Productions. I can't remember how quickly the audition process was, but the callback was pretty fun! From the moment that I started, it was seamless in going through it, and now I feel like I'm part of the "Old Guard."

Kat: What made you want to go into a show where you purposefully get drunk with Shakespeare?

Nate: It was the Shakespeare and the improv. The one thing I really love focusing on as an actor is the ability to do improv in theatre and film. A lot of the clips I have in my film reel are improvised takes. One of my big idols is Robin Williams, and he had a thing where they would do a straight take, and then they would do an improvised take. So this was a lot of freedom - They give you the chance to read some Shakespeare, see the structure of the show, and then be able to add your own sprinkling to it every night, depending on the cast and depending on the audience. I'd like to do shows like that for the rest of my life.

Kat: What was it like the first time you performed as the drunk actor?

Nate: The liquor helped! By then the show was in my bones, but then it was like, "Okay, now we're going to give you one more ball to juggle." And of course I'm nervous because I don't know if I'm gonna drop lines or if it's gonna affect the way I improvise things. But the cast was just so supportive and everybody treated it as though it wasn't really that big of a thing. You know, you know the show by now, just do it! I think there's a clip of my first drunk show on my Instagram that I haven't taken down yet. It's just me belting with a tie on my head.

Lisa: That's actually a safety thing that we didn't talk about, but they don't start as the drunk. They do sober performances first.

Kat: Okay, so you do multiple performances before you become the drunk

Nate: I practiced! I went to Costco and I got a bottle. Did five shots, and I wasn't quite ready, but was like "Okay, you have to have to do this. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5!" But then I was like "Oh no, I don't know my lines." I was looking at my roommate like, "I'm gonna fuck this up!" But I had to do the work. Then I put it on my resume - "Can drink." V

Kat: On the day that you are going to be the drunk actor do you have any specific things you do to prepare? Or is it the same as when you come in to be a sober actor?

Nate: A little bit of the same. I tend to change my diet just a little bit when it's the morning of the drunk show because you need to eat before you ingest liquor. So I'll minimize the calories at the beginning of the day, and then once it gets towards lunch or early dinner, I'll up the fat and the carbs. And of course, the great thing is that safety is always number one. So even if it's like five minutes before the show and I'm like, "Listen, I don't feel like drinking" another actor says "I'll take it, that's fine." There's always somebody to pick it up. No one is ever made to feel pressure to drink if they don't want to do it five days before or five minutes before.

Kat: How do you feel interacting with audiences in this immersive space?

Nate: It's like I'm back at home or I'm just at a party. The ability to really talk to the audience, to get a feel for them beforehand. And also to remember when I first saw the shows, how I was nervous and excited. It's like if you go into somebody's house and you're like, "I don't know how to act." It's a good thing to remember that this is our house, but you're welcome. So it's a nice way to try to get people to relax. That way they're not scared, because we're the entertainment.

Kat: Have you had any standout audience interaction moments that have stuck with you?

Nate: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I think I was the drunk actor and I had picked somebody randomly for a bit. I asked, "What is your name, Sir?" He reaches into his jacket and pulls out a card, handing it to me and I'm going, like, "Oh, this is it I'm getting deported. Okay, I'm Puerto Rican, they can't deport me. They'd just put me in Rikers for 20 years. So he gave me his card and it said he was a fellow of some certain Shakespeare society in the UK, and I'm looking at this card going like "Okay, this is official." One time we had two similar-looking hipster guys who were dressed almost exactly the same way. And we brought 'em down and asked the one guy, "What's your name?" And it was Jesse. "What's your name?" It was James. Jesse and James. Jesse James. They didn't know each other! So yeah, happy little accident.

Kat: What's your favorite Shakespeare play?

Nate: King Lear.

Kat: And what's your favorite one when you're drunk?

Nate: It would be Patrick Stewart's version of Macbeth because I saw that on Broadway. He made a sandwich on stage. And then later on, like Lady Macbeth has a line and he walks up and grabs it [the sandwich] like a bowling ball. He was making a sandwich! He put butter on it and ham and then he gives it to the actor who better eat it because you better eat the f-ing sandwich Patrick Stewart made for you.

Kat: There are very few actors that could get away with doing that.

Lisa: Someone has a drink chicken based on that in Chicago where they make a giant pile of sandwiches. Just based on that moment.

Kat: Do you have a favorite challenge to do when drunk?

Nate: Depending on the mood of the audience, I'll ask if they want something light or if they want something dark. And I love true crime podcasts and stuff like that so of course that, so I test it with a little "true crime factoid." If they're like "Oooohhhh," I'm like, "Do not do Ghislaine Maxwell. Alright."

Macbeth

Now on to the performance! That night, "The Drunk Shakespeare Society" was putting on Macbeth, one of Shakespeare's classic tragedies. The show begins with the drunk actor taking five shots, with one "lucky" audience member taking a shot as well to prove that it's real. Tonight's audience member was Mary, a lovely woman that Nate enjoyed comparing to Betty White, who would have celebrated her 100th birthday that night. Then the rest of the actors come on stage and the performance really begins!

When you're going into Drunk Shakespeare, you should not expect a full, serious, two-hour production of a Shakespeare tragedy. Instead, you're getting 90 minutes of unpredictable yet contained chaos, with actors interacting with the audience and each other, questioning lines and teasing the drunk actor. Challenges are issued to Nate, who must recite a Shakespearean monologue after taking yet another shot of alcohol. Another actor, Chris, had to drink a disgusting combination of milk and beer, symbolizing "the milk of human kindness" from Act 1, Scene 5. The entire production is a delight that will leave you breathless from laughter and feeling good about the world.

After the show was finished, I went backstage to chat with Nate and check on how he was doing. Check it out!

Interview with Nate Betancourt Post-Show

Kat: My first question - How are you feeling?

Nate: Wonderful. I would compare it to Christmas Eve. I can't get lit 'cause I have to do shit. So I'm going to speak cryptically for the next five minutes.

Kat: That's your true crime fan side coming out here!

Nate: Mhmm!

Kat: So what was it like performing drunk?

Nate: Um, a little bit "fly by night." It's a lot more of the improv elements, reading the crowd like an extra ball that you're juggling. The crowds into it? Great. The actors are fine with it? Great. I'm safe? Great. That's number one. Time management's another one I'm still working on. At the end of the day, if the crowd seems to be enjoying it and they're getting their money's worth, I don't mind stepping a little out of hand. But that being said, I do feel healthy. I'm always checking with my cast members. Were I to walk outside, I would not commit a double murder like OJ Simpson.

Kat: Did you have a favorite moment from tonight's show?

Nate: Wow, there were so many! How's my short-term memory going? Honestly, taking a shot with Mary [an audience member] was pretty fun. I wanted to do a little Betty White joke with her. Her hair was just so goddamn perfect. Actually, my favorite part was anytime I interacted with someone who seemed a little reluctant but down to play. I did like that - It means I loosened something to make somebody have a good time and take a little risk.

Kat: Advice for anyone looking to get into drunk acting?

Nate: Don't do it to drink. Do it to have fun in the moment with a different audience every time. When I do the final toast to everybody in the space, I really am trying to check in with them. In just a couple of seconds, I try to tell them, "You're here to have fun. I'm safe. You guys are fine. Don't get crazy." But my goal is trying to get people out of their shells to enjoy the show and to not be scared. No one's gonna hit you. No one's gonna spit on you. We're here to have fun.

Kat: Any last words?

Nate: Wow, I should have a quote! Yes, last words are: May you have food and shelter, a pillow for your head, And forty years in heaven before the devil knows you're dead. That's my favorite toast of all time. All right.

Ultimately, Drunk Shakespeare was such a fun experience and I can't wait to go back to the Green Fig to see more incredible performances. You like Shakespeare? Check it out. You like drinking? Check it out. You don't like Shakespeare? Check it out! No matter what your preferences are, you're sure to have a fun and safe time at Drunk Shakespeare.

Here's some quick (but important) info in case you are interested in seeing Drunk Shakespeare:

  • Currently, Drunk Shakespeare is located at the Green Fig inside of the YOTEL on 10th Avenue
  • Drunk Shakespeare runs for approximately one hour and thirty minutes with no intermission
  • All attendees must show proof of being 21+ before entering the venue
  • You must be able to show proof of full vaccination before entering the venue
  • There is no food or drink minimum at Drunk Shakespeare, but it is possible to purchase food and beverages throughout the show

A special thank you to Lisa Klages and Nate Betancourt!



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From This Author - Student Blogger: Kat Mokrynski